The message of Brad Paisley's new collaboration with LL Cool J, "Accidental Racist," seems to be: It's complicated. If you're not from the South you couldn't possibly understand the Confederate flag's enduring popularity, and if you are, there are no easy answers. And that the solution should be for both sides to move on and stop letting yesterday use up too much of today.
Furthermore, the lyrics may seem cloying, but that's because you're not from around here. After all, as Paisley sings in the chorus, "our generation didn't start this nation." Let's put the past behind us when it comes to symbols of the past... or something. As LL Cool J puts it, "If you don't judge my gold chains / I'll forget the iron chains."
So what's the truth about the Confederate flag? The rectangular version that we're all familiar with, also known as the rebel or Dixie flag, was a battle flag used by a handful of units during the American Civil War. It didn't historically represent the Confederate States of America, and wasn't the national Confederate flag during the war. The flag became more prominent in the 20th century, when some Southern military units during WWII used it in battle. It rose in both popularity and racist undertones during the '50s and '60s when Southerners who opposed desegregation adopted it as a symbol of the South's resistance to the politics of the North. The flag has also been adopted as a symbol by hate groups such as the Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
The South's opposition to abolition, and later support of apartheid, is part of Southern history, and one that the flag is inexorably tied to. There's no question that acknowledging that past is part of moving past it. Becoming more complex in our understanding of Southern history is one way that the South can defy negative assumptions about its culture, and foster a real sense of pride — not just for the past, but for the present as well.
Is that what Paisley's song is attempting to do? Critics have said that the song is just plain racist, while others say it was well-intentioned, but awkward in execution. And there are the people who object to the idea that he should be "apologizing" for anything.
Regardless of the quality of the "Accidental Racist," there's no question that Paisley has cojones. Now the backlash-to-the-backlash has begun, and some have praised his authenticity. It's true: by country music standards, this take is downright nuanced. It's certainly a step up from Blake Shelton's "Kiss My Country Ass" ("Tearin' down a dirt road / Rebel flag flyin' ... If you got a problem with that, ha ha! / You can kiss my country ass"). In comparison, Paisley seems to be expressing a difficult truth, and singing from the heart about a difficult topic.
The first verse of the song tells a story about a man, ostensibly Paisley, walking into a Starbucks wearing a flag emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag.
"To the man that waited on me
At the Starbucks down on Main
I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt
The only thing I meant to say
Is I'm a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is
Like the elephant in the corner of the south
And I just walked him right in the room"
But does this character exist? When people wear the Confederate flag, are they really surprised or concerned with who might be affected?
"They want to be able to carry the wounds of the Civil War but not the baggage," is how a source in the Nashville music industry described it to me. "They want to hold on to the trappings of the Confederacy but not be held responsible for everything they symbolize. And they're tired of having people make them feel bad for it I don't know if they are so much concerned about racism as they are about being seen as racist."
The lifelong Southerners I spoke to about this said that anyone wearing the flag as an adult in 2013 is fully aware of how it's viewed by others and has made the decision that they're okay with that.
One man, who grew up in southwestern Virginia, said that he was unsure whether he thinks the flag is inherently racist, but pointed out that "for a big segment of our population it brings up feelings of fear and a really nasty legacy." A lifelong Texan told me that whites aren't the ones who get to decide if it's racist: "The NAACP says it is, and that is enough for me."
That's not the perspective of the narrator in Paisley's song, who is saddened that his shirt might offend someone, but who never commits to stop wearing it or apologizes for celebrating such a symbol. Paisley's audience may see such a narrative as inspiring and thoughtful, since Paisley is acknowledging the feelings of others. Paisley supported President Obama in the last election and seems to promise a softer, gentle country in a sea of middle fingers.
Which is precisely why it's so disconcerting to hear him talk about the pride he has when he thinks about the Confederacy; in an interview with USA Today about the song's backlash, Paisley said, "I'm not proud that people's ancestors were beaten and held in bondage. But I am sure as heck proud of the farm I live on and the Confederate soldier buried there. I don't know whether we reached an answer, but it's real interesting to hear LL say, let's let bygones be bygones and the past is the past."
For myself and the other Southerners I know, pride for our home comes from good manners, iced tea, and front porches, not its past resistance to emancipation and, later, integration. My friends also spoke of the racial and cultural diversity of the South today, pointing out that calling the Confederate flag a symbol of Southern pride was conflating "Southern" with white.
Praising Paisley for starting the conversation that "Accidental Racist" has begun is setting the bar too low for the South. Putting the onus of understanding on those who are hurt by his own racially charged choices is cowardly. It would have been braver to admit that wearing a Confederate flag represents more than just an awkward moment in a Starbucks.